The New Workplace Perk: Gas

From the 8/7/2008 NY Times.

What will you do to attract and retain employees?

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John Schneyer
Boca Consultants

Published: August 7, 2008

IN Washington State, Microsoft has leased three large office complexes miles from company headquarters in recent months to shorten the commutes of about 7,000 employees.

In San Francisco, Citigate Cunningham, a public relations company, now encourages workers to stay home whenever possible, providing laptop computers and BlackBerrys to enable telecommuting, and reimbursing them $40 a month for high-speed Internet connections in their homes.

At Rejuvenation, a lighting manufacturer in Portland, Ore., employees skip one day of work completely. The company has gone to a four-day week, with each workday being 10 hours long. Alysa Rose, the president, also gives away a free bicycle to an employee every month.

Nationwide, workers are being presented with free gas cards, subsidized bus passes, more money in their paychecks, and the opportunity to turn their cars into company billboards (with the company often picking up all fuel costs, not just miles spent commuting).

Gasoline has become the new workplace perk, as employers scramble to help workers cut its use and cost. A dollar a gallon ago, things like telecommuting, shortened workweeks and Internet subsidies were ways of saving time and providing workers with a little more balance in their lives. Now they have become ways to save money and to keep workers from, well, walking.

“We had 14 calls last week and 9 of those named high gas prices as their No. 1 reason for leaving their job,” said Lauren Milligan, who helps job-seekers polish their résumés at ResuMayDay, a career-management services company in Warrenville, Ill. “Employers have to start paying attention.”

Some employers have come to the same conclusion. “We need to stay competitive and viable,” said David Lewis, the president of OperationsInc., a human resource consultancy in Stamford, Conn., where, since June, employees receive up to $100 a month on an American Express cash card to offset rising gas prices.

“An extra $100 a month for gas and you have a real issue that could result in turnover,” Mr. Lewis explained, adding that even with rising unemployment, it is more economical for him to retain workers than hire new people and train them.

Richard Holtz, the president of InfiniSys, which designs technology systems for buildings, and has offices in Daytona Beach, Fla., also sees cushioning the effect of rising gas prices as a cost of doing business.

To stay competitive, he decided he had to help his workers, who were spending about 15 percent of their salaries on commuting. He switched to a four-day workweek, gave everyone a small raise (25 cents an hour) and began paying for home Internet to foster telecommuting.

The shortened workweek seems to be catching on, at least as an experiment. All 4,000 employees of the city of Birmingham, Ala., switched to that schedule as of July 1. Utah announced a similar switch in early July. Suffolk County in New York, and Oakland County in Michigan are also adjusting workers’ schedules.

Schedules are often staggered, so that the office itself is open Monday through Friday, but any given employee is there for only four days. Some people love the new schedule, because it feels like another day off each week. Others hate it because of the complications of coordinating child care. But almost everyone agrees that saving 20 percent of commuting costs is a plus.

The National School Boards Association reports that 100 schools in 16 states have moved to a four-day week (with longer school days) in order to save on transportation, heating and cooling costs.

So could three-day weekends for parents and children be the norm in the future?

Companies not quite ready for such a dramatic change are taking modest gas-saving steps: a new emphasis on telecommuting, for example. Sabre Holdings in Southlake, Tex., which started encouraging employees to work from home in June, has not only saved them money. There has been an unexpected benefit, the elimination of what had become a morning ritual at headquarters — the dash to find a desk.

Last year, Sabre, which owns travel-theme companies, including, had downsized from three office buildings to two, to save on cooling and heating costs. Cubicles were then assigned daily, first come first served, resulting in a stress-inducing game of musical chairs.

Telecommuting also saves employees the money they had been spending on work clothes and takeout lunch, said Janelle O’Haugherty, a company spokeswoman.

Even employees who are already telecommuting are doing more of it, with corporate blessings. Steve Perry, who works in licensing at SelectQuote Insurance Services in San Francisco, had been working from home one day a week for the last few years. A few months ago, he added a second at-home day.

And just last month he began outfitting a full office in his house, where he plans to work four days a week, going to the office only once. That way, he will cut the cost of his three-hour round-trip commute from Napa to $25 from $100 a week.

Companies that would prefer that workers come in daily are helping to pay the cost of getting them there. Bayless Engineering and Manufacturing, based in the Santa Clarita Valley of California, has about a dozen employees who live 50 miles away in the Antelope Valley. This year the company created a van pool — a rental from Enterprise — to transport them to work and back.

The University of Richmond in Virginia now provides free daily bus vouchers. Of the university’s 1,300 employees, 35 arrived and departed by bus before the program began this summer. Now 150 do.

Averett Warmus Durkee, an accounting firm in Orlando, Fla., presented each employee with a $1,000 raise to offset rising fuel costs. And HotBox Pizza, a four-store chain in Indianapolis, has changed its delivery ways.

Until last month, its drivers had to use their own vehicles. But Gabe Connell, the owner, noticed that arguments were breaking out among drivers over whose turn it was to deliver to distant addresses.

“Until gas went up they would jump at any call they could get, so it was a bad sign when they were trying to get out of deliveries,” Mr. Connell said. “Pizza and delivery are synonymous. I can’t risk losing drivers.”

So he is in the process of buying five Smart cars (“so small that one car can fit in the gas tank of a Hummer,” he said) that get about 40 miles per gallon. The vehicles will double as rolling advertisements, because they will be painted with the chain’s red and black logo. Or with something that resembles the company logo. At HotBox the napkins say Napkin, and the shirts worn by the waiters say Shirt. So the new wheels will simply say Car.

Autos as advertising are also the approach of, which runs employment Web sites in 18 cities. The 297 employees at headquarters in Phoenix can apply to have their cars turned into Jobing billboards by means of an adhesive plastic skin.

In return for the publicity (and as compensation for the awkwardness of taking such a car on, say, a first date) the employee is paid $500 a month plus reimbursement for all fuel costs — both for business and personal use of the car.

The program has been in existence for more than five years, said Joe Cockrell, the director of marketing (whose Ford Escape is wrapped and who took a road trip to Sedona last weekend, with Jobing picking up the $120 he spent on gas). But this is the first year that Jobing has had a waiting list for the car makeovers.

“Gas prices are making a lot of people look at things like this differently,” Mr. Cockrell said. “It’s making everyone get creative.”

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